Songs of Freedom in New York

I can hardly bear to watch this video, but I feel compelled to share it.  You need to know what is being done in your name.

The right to peaceful protest?  The right to dissent?  Right.

Meanwhile, up in another part of New York, I was at a conference this weekend celebrating “40 Years of Feminist Activism and Scholarship” at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.  Here all was decorous and polite–no protesters, no cops, no tight handcuffs or people being pulled down the sidewalk by their feet.

Instead we discussed “issues of translocation” in the Latino diaspora, and how there is a need for social theorists to serve as translators, transcultural workers, and border-crossers of all kinds.  Unfortunately, this information was presented in a kind of high-level theoretical drone that sucked the lifeblood out of the topic. When the presenter began to read us the annotated table of contents of her new anthology, I had to get up and leave.

Fortunately, the panel I had organized, on “Living and Working in the Borderlands,” was up next, and it kicked us in to a whole different register.  Margaret Randall read poetry that wrenched us into the heart of the dangerous, shifting borders between past and present, safety and terror, life and death.

“They say you are not at home/until you have lived in a house/through all four seasons./What they don’t say is/you are never at home/when a part of that home/has been taken.” —As If the Empty Chair: Poems for the Disappeared, p. 20

Ruth Irupe Sanabria followed, reading her powerful poems about growing up in the long, sick shadow of the terror that marred her childhood in Argentina during the Dirty War.  Reading a poem about how the violence visited on her parents, political prisoners during the war, was reenacted in her own childhood, Ruth choked up, and I could not help but think of the first-trimester fetus curled in her womb, choking as well in this legacy of pain.

Finally the youngest of us spoke, my current B.A. student Michelle Gonzalez, who described her struggles to come to turns with all the jagged fault lines that mark her own identity.  Her honest self-exploration led us into a thoughtful, engaged discussion with the audience on how one’s location in the borderlands, whether chosen or imposed, can be both a spur and a hindrance to creative freedom.

There is a temptation to see a continuum in this, a continuum of creative protest going from the poet who writes in the blood of her own passion to the passionate young protester who is not afraid to put her body on the line and submit to the manhandling of the police.

One thing for sure is that the kind of jargon-laden social theory expressed in the keynote speech seems more and more clearly to be completely beside the point.  What is the good of talking about people’s struggles for freedom, self-determination and dignity in words they would not understand, on a platform to which they will never have access?

There is a reason that song lyrics continue to resonate with the young.  We may not all read poetry, but most of us do listen to music.  Simple, direct, powerful words are the ones that will stay with us, and perhaps even move us to action.

What songs do you hum to give yourself the courage to go on?  What songs might break through the spell of the men in blue and remind them who they are supposed to be working for?

I’ll end with the voice of a martyr for political freedom, Victor Jara, savagely murdered by the Chilean goon squad while still valiantly trying to sing his songs of peace:

It’s up to us now to keep his song alive.

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